On the Spoor of Graham Greene : THE LIFE OF GRAHAM GREENE Volume I: 1904-1939 by Norman Sherry (Viking: $29.95; 783 pp.)

In securing Graham Greene's approval to write this biography, Norman Sherry tells us, he promised the novelist that he would retrace his arduous journeys through the more rugged parts of the world.

"Risking disease and death as he had done," he writes, ". . . I made journeys to Mexico (where I contracted dysentery in exactly the same mountain village, living in the same boarding house as he had done), Haiti, Argentina, Paraguay and Panama.

"In Liberia, a week after I had left that most corrupt of countries, during a revolution led by Sgt. Doe (now general and head of state), the previous corrupt leader was murdered and his supporters shot or had their throats cut. I had only recently interviewed some of these men."

There is something grandiloquent and faintly absurd about this. If Sherry had tackled De Maupassant would he have felt obliged to contract a venereal disease? Does talking to government officials who were subsequently murdered really constitute risk of death?

Boastfulness does not disqualify a biographer; Leon Edel is not a shrinking violent; neither was the late Richard Ellmann. But presumably boastfulness would be earned by the writer's perceptiveness and literary gifts; not by his blisters. The sad truth about this massive biography--only the first of two volumes--is that its energy is mainly physical. No doubt, those were hard trips; they seem to have done more for Sherry's self-confidence than for his insight, which is crude, or his writing, which is ungainly.

Sherry's book describes Greene's comfortable but uneasy childhood as one of the children of the headmaster of Berkhamstead School, and later as a student there. It takes us through a mysterious adolescent breakdown, a course of treatment with a London psychoanalyst, his days at Oxford, his courtship, conversion and marriage.

It tells of his life as a struggling and frequently failing young writer; and of the early successes--"Stamboul Train" and "This Gun for Hire"--which, sold to Hollywood, allowed his family to live with a little more ease. It goes on to describe the writing of "Brighton Rock," a religiously tinged thriller and his first masterpiece; and of his expeditions to Africa and to Mexico. It ends with 1939 and "The Power and the Glory."

Greene chose Sherry, the latter tells us, partly out of admiration for a book he had written about Joseph Conrad. At the same time, Greene wrote a friend that his biographer-to-be "has the great advantage of not knowing me." Considering that Greene was reluctant to have a biography done at all, and only gave in at the urgings of relatives, the phrase has an odd ambiguity.

I suppose it is far-fetched to suggest that the elusive writer, noted for privacy, chose Sherry because he sensed convenient qualities of obtuseness in him. But it is remarkable how little, despite 12 years work and thousands of miles traveling, Sherry has managed to get beyond what Greene has already chosen to put out about himself.

Greene's grueling trek through Liberia, for example, in the company of a young cousin, is vividly related. But the telling seems mainly to be a paraphrase of Greene's own book on the subject. The footnotes for these chapters largely consist of citations of "Journey Without Maps" followed by chains of 20 or 25 ibids.

Similarly, the chapters dealing with the writer's trip to Mexico draw most of their substance from Greene's "The Lawless Roads" and his novel, "The Power and the Glory." The results of Sherry's travels are relatively meager, though discussed at length and ploddingly. Sherry finds the old man whose toothy look inspired Greene's physical description of the Judas figure in "Power and Glory." It is quite a jump, though, to assert that this makes him the model for the character.

In his research, Sherry had access to Greene's diaries (with an occasional page torn out), to a great deal of unpublished correspondence, and to interviews with friends and relatives. He also had a number of talks with Greene himself. These are curiously unreflected in the book; hardly ever do we get a reference to something Greene told the author. "You are grilling me," Sherry quotes him as complaining; if so, the heat was on low.

Perhaps the most striking new material is Greene's letters to Vivien Dayrell-Browning before they were married. He met her while at Balliol and fell violently in love. She was cool for a long time, but began to soften after he converted to her Catholicism.

The temper of the letters makes it clear that whatever else went into Greene's conversion--one that would shape his most important writing later on--Eros was at least as important as Grace. His, you might say, was a baptism under fire.

"Dear one, Darling heart, marvelous wonderful adorable one, Angel, Loveliest in the world, Sweetest heart, Dear only one for ever, sweet one, old thing, dear desire," goes one courting passage. Later, trying to overcome her resistance by proposing a celibate marriage, he writes:

"And there'll be winter evenings, when we can make hot buttered toast for each other (do you like roast chestnuts? I do), & there'll be summer days with the sea sparkling blue . . . & days on the town, & night expresses, and evenings sometimes, when we are both sleepy and tired & we'll just read, or I'll write & you'll put in a few touches to a design."

It is not what we tend to think of as Greene's prose style. But after a few samples--and long before Sherry exhausts what perhaps he regards as his richest trove--the letters lose their relevance. After all, the meaning a love letter has for writer and recipient is not the meaning it has for a third party. In effect, we're reading a flawed translation.

The fundamental defect in this biography is not a matter of sources, nor a lack of assiduousness nor an overbalancing use of what Greene himself has written. It is in the mediocrity of the biographer's thought and style.

Here is Greene as a baby: "His infancy went according to nature's and man's plan. For four months he was fed at his mother's breast." As a child: "Childhood and the innocent eye are temporary." Later on: "The world was not as he imagined." Crying at sad stories: "Perhaps this imaginative sympathy with the predicaments of others helped to make him a novelist."

Describing a student prank--Greene and a friend dress up as Gypsies and play a barrel organ on the street--Sherry sees far-reaching implications. Greene was "challenging accepted principles, and experiencing life outside the bounds of society's protection, which involved hardship and danger (on a minor scale as yet), secrecy and disguise."

As for the topographical accuracy of Brighton Rock, Sherry tells us that "what Hale observed in the Grand Hotel so must Greene have observed: They were drinking cocktails on the terrace."

He also writes that Greene "was antipathetic to Mexico" (he didn't like the place); and that ". . . there are times when he smiles, with his transparent blue eyes giving an impression of blindness, when he unquestioningly looks beatific." Unquestionably.

Only those who admire Greene's writing are likely to want to read a biography that may fill 1,500 pages when it is finished. And few who admire Greene's writing are likely to put up with Sherry's.

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